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Mohawk Man Accused of 'Stealing' Land May Prompt Resolution of Land Claim Lawsuit

The case of a Mohawk man arrested in December for “stealing land” may be the engine that moves forward a land claim lawsuit that has languished in federal court for decades.

William Roger Jock, 50, who is also known by his traditional Mohawk name Kaneretiio (Good Leaf), was arrested December 6, 2011, after being indicted by a grand jury and charged with second degree grand larceny on the charge that he “wrongfully took, obtained or withheld real property located in the Town of Bombay, from its owner, Horst Wuerching, with intent to deprive the true owner of the property or to appropriate the property to himself and that the total value of the property exceeded $50,000.” Wuerching is a non-Native resident of Westchester County, New York. Jock was arraigned in Franklin County Court on December 9 when he pleaded not guilty.

The incident in which the land was allegedly “stolen” took place on March 2, 2009, when Jock and others from the Men's Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse – Kanien’kehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne – reoccupied a 240-acre parcel to which Wuerching holds a deed.

Jock, Bear Clan representative to the Men’s Council, told Indian Country Today Media Network that Kanien’kehaka (“People of the Land of the Flint, known as the Mohawks) have been wrongfully and illegally dispossessed of land during the past 200 years and that the Men’s Council’s action in March 2009 reclaimed land that has always belonged to the Mohawk people. He pointed to the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796 which acknowledges the Mohawk people’s aboriginal territory, including the area known as the Hoganburg Triangle where the 240-acre parcel is located. The entire Hoganburg Triangle is part of a long-standing Mohawk land claim that is supported by the federal government. The land claim may have to be resolved before justice can be served on Jock’s indictment.

“We’re only reclaiming what is ours,” Jock told ICTMN. I’m the focal point of this case because I’ve been the voice and the face of this struggle, but it’s not about me, it’s all about the land. All my life I’ve known that land to be the people’s. When the Europeans showed up, when the Dutch showed up, we didn’t only feed them, we taught them how to live here. For our people it was always about sharing, not ownership, but when push comes to shove we’re forced to say this land belongs to the people.”

Jock is scheduled to return to court on January 19, 2012 for a conference. All motions in the case must be submitted by January 23. Attorney Lorraine White, a St. Regis Mohawk member, and her partner Brian Barrett will defend Jock against the criminal charge, but it is a bigger issue than the grand larceny allegation, White said. “We’re arguing first and foremost that Roger Jock hasn’t stolen anything. The property is still there. I drove by it yesterday,” White told ICTMN facetiously. On a more serious note, White said that the case is “not a Roger Jock issue,” but a larger political issue. “When Roger says he’s reclaiming what is ours he’s right both in law and in principle. We’re talking about treaty rights. The original boundaries of our territories that were laid out in the 1796 Treaty have never been diminished or extinguished in any way,” White said.

The 1796 treaty, which identified lands consisting of a six-square-mile area and other areas to be set aside for the Indian nation, was ratified by Congress. The only way to change reservation land is through an act of Congress, but Congress has not enacted any law that would change the 1796 reservation boundary.

The Mohawk land claim has been pending in federal court since its original filing by the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (the Mohawk people acknowledged by Canada’s federal government) in 1982. That lawsuit was consolidated with another land claim filed in 1989 by Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs (Traditional Government) and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (acknowledged by the United States) against New York state, and Franklin and St. Lawrence counties. Then in 2009 St. Regis Mohawk Tribe filed a separate action in federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that the boundaries of the reservation delineated in the 1796 Treaty “are currently in place and encompass an area known as the Hogansburg Triangle.“

In 1998 the U.S. Department of Justice filed an intervener’s brief supporting the Mohawks’ land claim. The Justice Department brief says the State of New York entered into six alleged “treaties” with individuals claiming to represent the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe between 1810 and 1845, selling lands reserved for the Mohawks in the 1796 Treaty without the consent of Congress – let along the Mohawks – in violation of the 1790 Non Intercourse Act.

"The Mohawks have an historical and federally protected right to this land," said Lois Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department's Environment Division at the time. "The government alleges that New York violated these rights when it purchased the land without Congressional approval in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It is time to right this wrong and compensate those who have been injured."

A dozen years later, the Mohawks’ land claim lawsuit has not been resolved. Jock said he believes his criminal case will prompt a resolution of the land claims. "This is a Mohawk issue, this is not a new claim,” Jock said. “Legal title to this land remains with the aboriginal people. New York State will have to look at this now and come to some truth on the ill dealings it did. They created this mess, they issued land deals to Wuerching knowing it was Indian land.” Jock said there have been, according to documents filed with the County Clerk's Office dating back to 1873, seven property owners on the land in question.

Jock said he has no ill toward Wuerching, but rather described him as a victim. “New York State should compensate him for the market value of the land,” Jock said. Jock said the deed held by Wuerching is not valid. “There was never a deed then all of a sudden there was a deed in 1874.”

White declined to discuss details about her legal strategies to defend Jock, beyond asserting that he didn’t steal anything. But she echoed his sense that case would reach beyond the county court. "This could be a blessing in disguise," White said about Jock’s indictment and arrest. “This issue is going to reverberate and it dovetails the civil litigation that is pending in the courts and through all of it you have the political interweavings,” White said. White, a former chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, said her decision to take on Jock’s case was based on the interplay of her identities as a Mohawk, an attorney and a former chief. “Primarily, it’s about really knowing what our responsibilities are as Mohawk people – to protect our people, our rights, and our land, and I took that very seriously when I assumed the responsibility of tribal chiefs. You need to stand up and fight for the interests of the Mohawk people,” White said.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council issued a statement December 9 distancing itself from Jock’s action. “While the Mohawk tribe understands and shares in the frustration of community members in relation to the land claim and the infringement of our collective rights, we cannot and do not condone the actions (allegedly) taken by Roger Jock and others in occupying land that does not belong to him," the release states. "The Mohawk tribe has, for over 20 years, been involved in litigation to address the illegal taking of our lands by New York State. We have consistently repurchased these lands and exercised jurisdiction over them, as they return to our ownership. We do not believe that the tactics (allegedly) used by Mr. Jock and others to seize this property are in the best interests of the community or of our regaining permanent ownership of these lands," the tribal chiefs stated.

Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne sought the warrant for Jock’s arrest and called for the grand jury that issued the indictment against him. ICTMN contacted Champagne and the following interview took place by phone on January 3.

Why is Jock being arrested now when the alleged crime took place in 2009?

It was an ongoing incident which at different times there were some comments being made that the tribe was taking over ownership of the property or there might be some resolution as to the issue of who owns the property in the mind of the Men’s Council. I have more than 3,000 pending cases and a case like this which isn’t an assault on a child or an attempted murder or a domestic violence case . . . To be honest with you, it got set aside for a little bit of time while I was dealing with my normal cases because of the information that had come to us that perhaps the issue was going to resolve itself. Once it was clear that the issue wasn’t resolving itself then our office took another look at it and went ahead and presented it to a grand jury and the grand jury came back with filing the indictment against Mr. Jock.

It’s curious though because there’s a land claim pending, is this correct?

Some of the land claims are claiming all of upstate New York! So you know the bottom line is this: there has been someone who has a deed for that property, they’ve been paying Franklin County taxes on the property for dozens of years. They came to my office and said, ‘Look if someone went on someone else’s property in the village of Malone, the state police would go and arrest them, but no one’s doing anything when someone is invading my property.’ It’s an issue that I didn’t have a good answer for him, so I said, ‘You know what? Let’s present it to a grand jury and the grand jury can decide whether there’s reasonable cause to believe a crime has occurred.

What happens if you go forward and the court finds him guilty and then later another court determines that it is in fact Mohawk land?

Well, what happens if I don’t go forward and every single person who’s paying taxes in this county now has no recourse if someone wants to lay claim to their property?

Why was he charged with theft when obviously the land is still there, rather than trespassing or something like that?

Well, that’s just our statutes in New York. The indictment speaks for itself.

Mrs. Jock said in a local paper, ‘We’re the caretakers of this land and that’s what this is about and the district attorney is trying to criminalize that belief.’ How do you respond to the assertion that this is an Indian land claim issue?

Like I said, some of these land claim issues claim everything north of Albany so where do we draw the line? If we have people that are paying taxes and a county treasurer saying this is taxable that has an appropriate deed and an appropriate abstract and title and the state of New York can tax it and when you have right next to it the IGA – when the tribe bought that property they went ahead and paid all the back taxes on it. So the question needs to be asked, who’s in charge? That’s why I went to the grand jury. I didn’t say to the tribal police or the state police ‘Go arrest somebody.’ I took it to the grand jury – an independent body, an arm of the court, and the arm of the court decided there was reasonable cause to think a crime was committed.

How come only he was arrested when other people were involved in the land occupation?

He has held himself out as in charge or the leader at several different times I don’t feel the need currently to go to the grand jury and arrest 150 people. I don’t have the resources for it and I think it’s an issue that once it’s resolved will be resolved for everyone. I have a lot of different photos of a lot of different people on the land a lot of different times.